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Super Mario Run was a failed chance for Nintendo to stop being Nintendo

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When success isn’t good enough

Mario squares off against Bowser Nintendo

Super Mario Run is an odd game from a company that rarely plays by the established rules in the game industry, and it’s been an interesting journey to try to figure out if it has been a success or not.

Apple is clearly enthusiastic about having one of the best-known characters in gaming on its platform, and is willing to push hard to make it a hit. The game was shown off for the first time during September’s Apple event, and this is what iTunes looks like at the moment:

Polygon

Nintendo has also stated the game has been downloaded 40 million times in its first four days of release, which is a pretty staggering number even when you take its worldwide launch into account. Super Mario Run currently sits at the No. 1 slot in both free games and highest-grossing apps in the United States, beating out constant favorites like Bitmoji and Snapchat in free apps, not to mention Clash Royale and Clash of Clans in revenue.

These top 10 lists on the App Store tend to be depressingly static, so this is a pretty big accomplishment for Nintendo’s first big-name mobile title. And that’s before the game’s Android launch!

But Nintendo could have done better

Nintendo stocks took a bit of a beating after the game’s launch, due to lukewarm reviews and the game’s strange pricing structure. You can download the game for free and play a few levels, but if you want the whole thing you’ll have to pay $9.99 to basically get the rest of the game for DLC. The top in-app purchase is, weirdly enough, the game itself.

Super Mario Run - App Store in-app purchases screenshot Apple via Polygon

That sort of thing works for players who grew up on freeware or demos of games, but it’s an uncomfortable compromise between free-to-play and premium apps that may be confusing to players who are used to more traditional mobile pricing structures. The reviews are filled with angry customers who didn’t understand the pricing structure when they downloaded the game.

You need to be online to play the game, for some ridiculous reason, which is a deal-breaker if you don’t have a signal during your commute. Nintendo also continues its baffling love affair with friend codes, a system for online interaction no one enjoys using.

Super Mario Run also uses a confusing ticket system to gate Toad Rally, one of the game’s largest — and most divisive — features. That’s the sort of thing we’re used to in a free-to-play game, but makes little sense in a premium, $10 release. Today’s new content release seems to be a response to that criticism, but carries its own strange gating system.

Nintendo also fumbled the messaging with the game, which features enjoyable, hand-crafted levels. People continually to refer to it as an endless runner, like Temple Run, which is a very specific genre of free-to-play game that often does well on the app store.

But Super Mario Run is not an endless runner at all, and anyone going into the experience expecting that sort of play may be confused and hostile to what the game actually does well. Nintendo has done a poor job of managing expectations, which is particularly frustrating due to the level design often being such a strong part of the game.

Nintendo released a mobile game that offers fun levels that definitely end, but people still think it’s an endless runner. It’s a free app that hits players with a $9.99 pay wall after only a few of those levels. And, while most mobile developers try to create a platform that will earn money as new features and content are added, it seems like Nintendo is treating Super Mario Run as a discrete game release.

“The Mario game, on the other hand, gives players only one chance to pay — the $9.99 charge to advance to the game’s higher levels,” The Wall Street Journal reported. “A Nintendo spokesman said the company didn’t plan to release additional content, either free or paid.”

None of this makes any sense, and it feels as if Nintendo is taking the worst aspects of premium and free-to-play games in order to sabotage its own efforts with apps. This was a great opportunity to move away from the sort of arrogance and borderline incompetence that keeps Nintendo from maximizing sales of its own best ideas, and it refused to learn even the most basic lessons of the mobile game market.

Super Mario Run will be profitable for Nintendo, but companies familiar with the opportunities given to the company in the mobile space are likely to focus on the money that Nintendo left on the table due to Super Mario Run’s muddled design and messaging.

Super Mario Run feels like a hit despite itself, and Nintendo has no one but itself to blame.